You Should Probably Love Tyler Johnson

by Kolby Solinsky

White Cover Magazine

white cover line

It’s easy to dig what Tyler Johnson dishes out. Not just because he’s a talented hockey player – a stable center with the eyes and the hands to score – or because of his story – that he was undrafted and certainly overlooked by outsiders, who thought Tampa’s future was all about Kucherov, Palat, and Drouin.

And unless you’re a fan of one of the teams his Lightning have sliced through this spring – Detroit, Montreal, now maybe New York – you know every well what he’s been doing. He leads Tampa in scoring and points, with 11 goals and 16 points. Actually, he leads the entire NHL in both, four goals ahead of Corey Perry and Patrick Kane and one point ahead of the already-mentioned Duck. Johnson might just be the only odds-on favourite for the Conn Smythe Trophy right now.

But what I admire isn’t just his entrepreneurial road to the NHL or that he’s doing it despite a vertical disadvantage. Instead, it’s that Johnson can do everything and anything you need him to.

See: ‘Lightning show they can hang with Rangers in Game 2‘ via Surrey Leader (May 18, 2015)

Last night was the purest example of that so far. While his second goal of the game was a roof-daddy, in-tight on and over the great Henrik Lundqvist’s glove hand, his other two – yes, hat trick – were the result of great effort and garbage. Johnson’s not afraid to get some stink on his scoring touch. His first was jammed home, both from his willingness to whack away at the puck and from Martin St. Louis’s tumble into his own goaltender (caused by Alex Killorn’s hooking on the even-smaller-than-Johnson St. Louis). It almost didn’t count, and the end was a little ugly – but it can’t deter from what it took Johnson to do to get it there, taking in the biscuit off a pass from Killorn and a fumbling St. Louis, racing down towards the Ranger net shorthanded, eventually stuffing it home while his team was playing 3-against-5.

It would have been Johnson’s biggest goal of the playoffs if he hadn’t already single-handedly beaten the Detroit Red Wings in Game 4 – scoring two goals with an assist, bringing Tampa back from the brink with under six minutes remaining – or scored the Game 3 winner against the Canadiens with 1.1 seconds left in regulation.

Every time the Lightning have hit the highlight reel these playoffs, it seems like Johnson’s been the cover boy. And that carried on last night, with the Spokane native (Olympics 2018, right?) cementing the hat trick with some hard work in front of the net, just tapping home the eventual winner to send Tampa up 3-1.

They’d win 6-2 with Johnson playing the superstar, with Steven Stamkos again (and credit to him, as well) slouching into the heart-and-soul role, channeling his inner Toews in the captain’s chair.

The Lightning continue to win because every player on their roster is doing what they need to do, and at the right time. They’ve had their hiccups, which included falling down 3-2 to Detroit and dropping two straight the the Habs. And, of course, Game 1 against the Rangers.

But they’ve chugged on with maybe the deepest lineup in the NHL, and with a goalie in Ben Bishop who’d be the game’s most underrated keeper right now if Freddy Andersen wasn’t out there, winning nine of 10 in Orange County.

But Johnson’s been the Swiss Army knife – the motor that’s replaced the wheel.

In the third round, the playoffs start to get serious. The first round’s a frenzy that puts divisional foes in a cage match and random things just love to happen, which is why you see so many underdogs not just predicted but favoured to beat their superiors – see: Calgary over Vancouver and Minnesota over St. Louis this year, and L.A. over anyone since 2012. The second round is where things settle down, but normally the victors are the ones who found their feet the series before, like Anaheim, Chicago, and Tampa this year, who all had relatively quick wins over Calgary, Minny, and Montreal, respectively.

But the third round, this is when the cream rises. It’s why players like Johnson – and probably Ryan Kesler out West, or David Krejci in 2011 and Jeff Carter in 2012 – often transform from the X-factor to the only factor. They have the ability to stand above the fray and the skill to beat down the score sheet.

It’s also why players like St. Louis and Rick Nash have had trouble the past few years, and why Joe Thornton’s never made a Stanley Cup Final. Their games are built in the regular season, when out-thinking their opponents and patience are virtues, where you’re playing the standings more than you’re playing a team.

In the playoffs, instinct and impulse are more important – you need to shoot first, ask about it later. That’s where Johnson’s succeeding, it’s where Patrick Kane has always succeeded, and where I think Corey Perry will in the West, too.

*NOTE: To all hockey coaches in Canada – odds are, your kid can’t become Stamkos or Sidney Crosby or Pavel Datsyuk. Those guys have a talent on top of their obvious intelligence and effort level that makes that impossible icons to emulate – you’re born with it, or you’re not. It’s same when Gretzky, Mario, and Bure player.

Instead, try pointing your son’s – or daughter‘s – eyes toward Tyler Johnson. His story’s something to aspire and inspire, and he’s got the straight-forward hustle and deceptive sizzle that made players like Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic who they were to the generation just past.

Johnson’s not a prodigy, which is what makes him a perfect model.

VIDEO: Johnson races down the ice for short-handed goal

VIDEO: Johnson nets first hat trick in Lightning playoff history